- Associated Press - Thursday, April 7, 2011

PANAMA CITY, FLA. (AP) - An all-woman federal jury decided Thursday that Girls Gone Wild founder Joe Francis is not liable for the emotional distress four anonymous plaintiffs claimed to have suffered from appearances in one of his videos.

The verdict followed an eight-day trial in Panama City in the Florida Panhandle. The jury of eight women began deliberating late Wednesday morning and took 14 hours to reach a decision.

The lawsuit claimed Francis exploited them by filming them flashing their breasts and engaging in other sexual activities in Panama City. It also claimed the women were ridiculed, ostracized and forced to leave school when videos were released.

Francis was relieved by the verdict.

“I’m feeling fantastic,” Francis told the Panama City News Herald. “I’m just happy it’s over. This thing has dragged on long enough.”

The four plaintiffs sued in March 2008, shortly after Francis pleaded no contest to state criminal charges related to their case. Francis maintained his innocence, saying he only made a plea deal to get out of jail. Those charges were based on a 2003 raid of his Bay County hotel rooms and corporate jet.

The plaintiffs are now adults, but they were allowed to file their suit using only their initials because they were all under 18 when they appeared in the video.

Francis had been representing himself until Judge Richard Smoak found him in contempt and fined him $2,500 after he asked one of the plaintiffs if she was a prostitute. Smoak had previously warned Francis to treat the plaintiffs gently during cross-examinations. Two of the women left the stand it tears.

“I think the judge was wrong,” Francis said. “I shook them like a tree until all the fruit fell out, and I shook them violently.”

The plaintiffs were seeking compensatory and punitive damages for the emotional injuries they said they’d suffered. The jury agreed with the complaint that Francis‘ behavior was “beyond all possible bounds of decency and is regarded as shocking, atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community,” but not with intent to cause emotional distress to the plaintiffs.

The attorneys who took over Francis’s defense halfway through the trial said they were surprised by the verdict.

“I think they followed the law,” Rachel Seaton-Virga said of the jury.

“I was very surprised because it’s not often that you find a jury that actually follows the law.”

An afterhours telephone message left with the plaintiffs lead attorney, Larry Selander, was not immediately returned.

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